Tom Lord-Alge - It's Not The Gear It's Your Ear

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Tom Lord-Alge is a two time Grammy-Award winning engineer and has mixed records for bands such as U2, The Rolling Stones, Oasis and many others. Tom is currently working out of his studio, Spank Studios, in Miami where he has been for the last 20 years. 

In this interview, Tom speaks about how he started out at the age of 16, getting thrown in the deep-end by his brother Chris Lord-Alge, which decision in his career he like to change, when a mix is finished, how you should deliver a session and so much more.

Enjoy!

 Tom’s studio - Spank Studios

Tom’s studio - Spank Studios

You started out working on live shows doing light and sound when you were only 16, how did you manage to get a gig at that young age?

It starts with having a phoney ID. 

Joking aside, I was raised and had been around musicians my entire life and the cats who offered me the gig were friends of my older brothers. When they offered the gig to me I approached my mother because she had to sign me out of school, which she was fine with.

…as long as you are working I don’t have a problem with that” she said

Also, I’m the youngest of six kids so she had already dealt with my other siblings who wanted to leave school to pursue a career in music, however, since my mom was a jazz musician she was very happy that her three youngest kids were pursuing a career in music.

You mentioned your mother, how did she influence you in terms of your life in music?

Her name is Vivian Lord and she is a jazz singer, pianist as well as a jazz educator. I have very fond memories as a child being in bed hearing mom performing or rehearsing with her jazz trio. When they took breaks my mom would go to the kitchen and make everybody something to eat, of course, the musicians would be in the basement with myself and my brothers and they would be smoking weed, “Here, have hit of off this” they would sometimes say to us. I was immersed in the whole culture and lifestyle in a relatively early age so it always seemed normal to me and that’s all I knew.

One of the first sessions you did, having been thrown in the deep-end by your brother, was with James Brown - Living In America, how did you handle the pressure? 

You just deal with it and I think having been around musicians and artists my entire life before I ever walked into the studio, certainly didn’t hurt. However, then James Brown and the producer Dan Hartman walks in, but once you get past that initial shock of who the person is you realize what you are there to do. 

How I got thrown in the deep-end during that session was that my brother, Chris, got out of his chair and left the room, just to see what I would do, so, I sat down in the chair and took over the session. Later in life, Chris said, “I had to see what you were made of so I walked out of the room because I needed to make sure you were on top of what was going on. I needed you to be aware of the situation and if you could handle it”

I guess I did OK. 

 From Top left, Unknown, Keith LeBlanc, Arthur Baker, Little Steven Van Zandt, CLA, TLA (Unique Recording circa 1985)

From Top left, Unknown, Keith LeBlanc, Arthur Baker, Little Steven Van Zandt, CLA, TLA (Unique Recording circa 1985)

You have also spoken highly about Bob Clearmountain, in which ways did he influence you as a mix engineer?

Bob’s influence on me was his use of EQ and what the vibe of a mix should sound like. Also, Chris and I would listen to his mixes and admire, for example, his compression and once we got better at replicating Bob’s mixing style we took the bits that we enjoyed and made them our own. 

Bob is a very, very consistent mixer, his mixes always sounded unbelievably good and that was something that I strove for and was inspired by. It didn’t matter the song, it sounded like he treated every song as if it was the song that made his career. To this day I still have a great relationship with Bob and have a ton of admiration for him because he really forged and invented the mixing engineer philosophy.

Bob’s treatment of drums were also really great, for example, Start Me Up by The Rolling Stones and all the Bryan Adam stuff that came out in that era. He did great rock records in the 80’s when there wasn’t really any rock records being made, obviously very different sounding then the rock records being made today, but when you listen to them they don’t have a time stamp, like other records in the 80’s. Records like Let’s Dance by David Bowie which Nile Rodgers produced is another freaking spectacular example of Bob and then you go to the whole other side such as Chic - Le Chic, holy shit, what the hell is this, again, mixed by Bob. The list just goes on and on and on.

Do you have a specific routine you do before going into a mixing session to be able to bring your A-Game?

Coffee! I have had a very specific coffee cup for 25-30 years. It has kept my coffee warm for years. That’s the start of my day, then I sit in front of the console, open the session I will work on, give a listen to the rough mix whilst setting up. At this point, I’m also mapping out the song, such as the different parts, where the strong suits are and how I want them to sound.

I go through a whole plethora of emotions while mixing, from elation to disappointment, from exuberance to share terror, from making decisions to being indecisive. Although, at the end of the day that’s part of the process and through the years I have learned not to second guess myself and instead go with my gut. I can’t give my client his mix until he gets My mix and I have to get My mix out of my system first, but generally speaking I always go with my initial impression.

How do you know when a mix is finished?

It’s being finished the whole time I’m working on it but once I’m putting the last parts in there’s always a handful of things I like to do on my console. For example, drum moves, which are easier on the console because I’m using outboard gear or console compression as oppose to doing it in Pro Tools. However, in Pro Tools it’s sometimes easier to do guitar or keyboard rides. Once the last parts are in it’s two or three passes of automation and that’s usually done on my small iLoud speakers by IK Multimedia. I use them because they are really nice and similar to what I feel the majority of people are listening through. 

How is it having your brother also be a really successful mixing engineer?

It’s fucking awesome, my brothers, Chris, Jeff [Lord-Alge] and I are inseparable. Jeff runs a backline company and he helped me build my studio, Spank Studio, here at Miami Beach. When Chris and I get together we really don’t talk too much about work but when we are out doing the trade shows together it’s all about work, but it’s awesome. 

Chris and I have always said one thing, it doesn’t matter which Lord-Alge mix it is, as long as it’s one of us. 

 TLA & David Byrne of The Talking Heads (Unique Recording 1984)

TLA & David Byrne of The Talking Heads (Unique Recording 1984)

Is there anything specific you learned from Chris that is a vital part of your workflow?

Everything. Chris had been bugging me for years while I was mixing live shows, saying I would really excel in the studio and that I should come to check it out and finally I took him up on it. I already had the knowledge of balancing and audio but Chris taught me how it is being the keeper of the vibe and what it’s like to manage a session.

We also used to screw around in the studio, for example, when we were both mixing at Unique Recording Studios, maybe he would be in the B room and I was in the A room or vice versa, and at the end of the day we would say, “come and listen to this snare drum”, that was our thing back in the day, “OK, who can get the snare drum the loudest?”. 

Also, if it wasn’t for Chris I don’t know where my career would be because he was the one who did all the dirty work, he cleaned the toilets and worked his way up the ranks. I didn’t have to do that. I walked into the studio and was hired as an engineer immediately based on Chris’s recommendation. I’m forever grateful for that and I’m very pleased and happy that I didn’t let him down

You have had a long career in the music industry, so, if you could change one decision you’ve made, what would that be?

I probably wouldn’t have asked Pink Floyd why they wanted me to mix their record. I’d like to have that one back. I had lunch with David Gilmour and Bob Ezrin and I asked them, “Why do you want me to mix the record?”, I think I had one too many Sake’s but I was very flattered but I didn’t think I was worthy and obviously, I wasn’t because I didn’t mix it.

I use this expression, “I know where the bodies are buried” because when you open a session you hear what the band is doing and the genie is out of the bottle. This was my thought process when I had lunch with David Gilmore. There’s a part of me that knows if I had mixed it, it could have ruined the experience of me enjoying it because I would have known where the bodies were buried. 

It changes your perception of the artist when you find that stuff out, for example, with Peter Gabriel, who is one of the most influential artists to me and my brothers. When I got to work with him the genie was let out of the bottle and now I know where the bodies are buried.

 TLA, Peter Gabriel & CLA

TLA, Peter Gabriel & CLA

Many people are struggling with perfectionism, therefore endlessly tweaking their knobs, or not finishing their projects, is this something you have experienced and how did you deal with it?

You got to know when good is good enough. You can tweak the knobs until the cows come home but it’s not going to get any better. Try to be the keeper of the song and keep the presence and the vibe of the song alive. Mixing is compromising, there are certain things I don’t compromise on but there’s only so much I can do with a recording. When you get a bad recording you do the best you can, although, if you polish it up too much it shows all the warts, so my job is to keep the vibe and the intent of the song intact without over-polish it or making it too perfect, which I do have a tendency to do sometimes.

I heard you speak a lot about the next generation of engineers and producers. What would be your number 1 advice to us in terms of getting and maintaining a career in the music industry?

First and foremost, when you are working on your session in your DAW, if in the back of your mind you feel that your idol is going to open it up, that will change the way you work. In my case when I was a recording engineer, I was taught to keep things clean and well notated. Think about if Bob Clearmountain was going to mix this, what would he say when he heard these tracks, so my recommendation to new engineers and producers is that in your workflow, even though nobody will ever open up your session you never know, so make your session tidy, spend time notating things, it’s very important. I get session all the time that are written in hieroglyphics so I can't figure out what half the things are sometimes. 

Also, don’t get hung up on gear. Learn your rig. Pull all your plugins out and just have 2 or 3 of the main things, as in, 2 EQ’s, 2 compressors, 2 reverbs, delays and a couple of speciality plugins and master those. Choose the once that are your workhorses that do the most for you and from there you just keep adding the colours.

Remember, It’s not the gear it’s your ear. Trust your ears, monitors and the decisions making process because that’s the whole things about mixing, trusting the decisions you make and be able to live with them.

Also, when I get sessions and I look at their master fader and I see 5, 6 or even 7 plugins on it I know this engineer is a hack and that he has no idea of what he is doing. You shouldn’t need to have that on your master fader. I can do it with one plugin on my master fader, for example, a compressor just to pull everything together.

What has been your hardest decision you had to make in your career?

Right now, is what to do with the studio in my house. I never had a studio in my house up until 3 years ago, but I love it. However, the problem now is that I don’t have a life. Throughout my whole career I never had a studio in my own house so I was able to separate work from my personal life but with the studio in my house, if I’m not working I’m still here making it better, doing maintenance because I like to keep my equipment at peak operational level. 

I’m going to sell my house because I have been in Miami Beach for 24 years and I have done what I need to do here so I’m looking forward going into the next chapter and I’m leaning towards not having a studio in my house. 

Are you moving back to LA?

I haven’t decided yet but I’m leaning towards New York City. I’m from that area and I miss it. There are some opportunities for me to park my gear so it’s something to consider. I’ll miss Miami Beach, but I had a great run here. 

Now, let me know what you think in the comments below and get the discussion going!